Keynote by Ertharin Cousin at the New York Event "Celebrating 100 Years of Vitamins"

Delivered on: 26 September 2012

Delivering Nutrition Innovation:  Partners in Progress and Promise

Hello everyone, and welcome to this wonderful event Celebrating 100 Years of Vitamins.

This is a birthday party, and we’ve been invited here by our hosts DSM and Sight and Life to take a welcome pause from this event-packed week to enjoy ourselves, share good times with colleagues and friends, and reflect just a bit on how far we’ve come as a community and where our imaginations can take us next.

This is also a graduation party, because through these past five years, all of us at the frontlines of hunger have worked so hard with all of you at the frontiers of science, and we have accomplished so much.  We’ve learned from one another, reshaped our strategies, translated policies to programmes, field-tested innovations like micronutrient powders and fortified foods, and scaled those solutions to the extent that they are having direct impact – saving lives and opening roads to happier and healthier outcomes for children at risk and the mothers and fathers who love them and care for them.

And this is also our baby shower, because this week the innovations we have worked hard to conceive and deliver are joining with a larger movement, Scaling Up Nutrition, a movement that brings together our best ideas with the essential actors required to extend and multiply their impact where impact is most needed.

We pass around a lot of big numbers in our work:  One in seven of the world’s people going to bed hungry every night; two billion people experiencing hidden hunger – missing an adequate supply of the vitamins and minerals necessary for a full and rewarding life; three and a half million childhood deaths due to malnutrition.  These are big, big numbers.  One of our most difficult challenges is to bring these hard-to-imagine numbers within the scope of everyday human experience, to make them tangible so we can touch people’s hearts and motivate them to act, to do something about it.

But one hundred, that’s a number we’ve learned to appreciate.  As children, we may have displayed our math learning by counting to 100. Some of us can recall family members born before 1912, only an exceptional few of them now among us, but all still cherished in stories and living memories.

One hundred years ago, Casimir Funk stood in a London laboratory tasked with putting a question together with a theory that could explain it.  Rejecting the unproven idea that beriberi disease was caused by contaminated food, Dr. Funk wanted a better answer, one that could be upheld through observation and scientific testing.  He harnessed his human curiosity and mental discipline in the search for that hidden knowledge, and he discovered something new; that beriberi was caused by a missing but as yet undefined substance present in rice polishings, and because that material had no name, he made one up.  He called them vitamines.

And that’s how progress is made.  Progress is made by people with the training and discipline to put away superstitions and conventional thinking, people who are not afraid to subject their ideas to careful testing and the scrutiny of their peers.  It’s made not by magic, but typically through a lot of hard work; long hours punctuated with rare moments when imagination discovers truth, and in doing so, advances all of humanity to the next level.

Starting in the 1920s, that spirit of discovery came together with another engine of human advancement.  Vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K were discovered, isolated and analyzed, then synthesized in mass quantities using newly patented processes, making them affordable to a smarter world that had grown to appreciate their beneficial, health giving effects.

This phenomenal expansion and growth was possible because of an essential nutrient represented here today:  partnership.

The UN World Food Programme cherishes our partnership with DSM, because through it we have learned so much.  DSM is the world’s leader in nutritional products for human health, and thanks to their leadership and support, WFP has joined in the march of human discovery.  In five years, this partnership has moved WFP from counting calories to understanding the nutritional needs of the people we serve.  We have modified our food basket to match.  We have moved from food aid – a depressing cycle of hunger and dependency – to food assistance, merging food security needs with nutrition security awareness, working with a growing array of partners to build healthier and more resilient communities, and in doing so, creating a brighter future for the hungry poor.

Together we’ve developed and we’ve delivered nutrition innovations that are making a positive difference in people’s lives.  We’ve integrated major advances like inexpensive micronutrient powders and fortified foods into WFP programmes, we’re working to extend the shelf life of essential nutritional products, and we’re building a family of affection, admiration and mutual responsibilities, a team that will be our foundation for more discoveries and achievements still yet to come.

The curiosity and  imagination that pushed Casimir Funk to ask questions and seek new answers one hundred years ago lives on with us today, now, in 2012.

We see it in the DSM employees who have joined with WFP staff in the Philippines, in Kenya and Indonesia, learning first-hand about the unique challenges of delivering food assistance, and taking that field knowledge back to their colleagues and their communities.  We see it in the dedicated fundraising of DSM friends and families who so far this year have raised over US$50,000; enough for WFP to provide more than 200,000 nutritious meals. 

And we see it in this gorgeous and moving public awareness campaign by our creative partners at Sight and Life, who have worked so hard to make 2012 not just an occasion to celebrate 100 years of vitamins, of human progress and human partnership, but also, and most importantly, these next 100 years of humanitarian promise. 

This knowledge that you and others before you have worked so hard to achieve must now be put to good use.  Every one of us, every one of us blessed to be gathered together in this nutritious and fortifying mix of development workers, business executives, science practitioners and public health advocates, each of us has a personal obligation to fulfill that humanitarian promise, to do well for ourselves and our families, and by doing well, to do good for all of humanity and to pass on a better future, a future of truth, responsibility and hope, to our children and their families. 

So let’s start now.  Let’s reset our calendars and begin the count to 2112.  Let’s raise our glasses in a toast to the next 100 years.  Here’s to brighter science and brighter living, here’s to improved nutrition and improved lives!

Thank you!